THE FIRST EPISTLE OF PAUL THE APOSTLE TO THE CORINTHIANS
Commentary by J.T. Lowe
The city of Corinth was famous for its wealth and bustling business community, which was mainly due to its location between the Ionian and Aegean Seas on the isthmus connecting the Peloponese with Greece. In Paul's time it was the capital of the province of Achaia and the seat of the Roman proconsul’s government (see Acts 18:12). The condition of morals of this city was notorious for corruption and wickedness, even in the degenerate heathen world; so much so that "to Corinthianize" was a proverbial phrase for "to play the lustful and immoral." Corinth was invaded by all kinds of religions and philosophies. With this in mind, Paul was concerned for the purity of the Christian Church at Corinth. That Church was founded by Paul on his first visit (see Acts 18:1-17), but the city had gotten into the church; and that explained why there were so many problems. The believers in Corinth needed to heed Romans 12:2—And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.—and so do we today.
Paul, known as the apostle to the Gentiles was successful in converting many of them (1Co 12:2), and even some Jews (Ac 18:8). He had been the instrument of God for converting many Gentiles and some Jews in spite of the passionate opposition of the Jewish leaders (Ac 18:5), during the year and a half in which he ministered there. The converts were chiefly of the lower classes (1Co 1:26). Crispus (1Co 1:14; Ac 18:8), Erastus, and Gaius (Caius), however, were men of status (Ro 16:23). A variety of classes is also implied in 1Co 11:22. Paul certainly had reasons for anxiety:
1. There was the risk of contamination by contact with the corruptions and temptations surrounding Christians; especially for the new converts.
2. There was the temptation to join with those who had a craving for Greek philosophy and oratory (which Apollos' excelled at, Ac 18:24), in contrast to Paul's simple preaching of Christ crucified (1Co 2:1).
3. There was the opposition of certain teachers to him, which naturally caused him anxiety.
4. And there were the Emissaries from the Judaizers of Palestine who boasted of "letters of commendation" from Jerusalem, the metropolis of the faith. They did not, it is true, insist on circumcision in refined Corinth, where the attempt would have been hopeless, as they did among the simpler people of Galatia; but they attacked the apostolic authority of Paul (1Co 9:1), some of them declaring themselves followers of Cephas, the chief apostle, others boasting that they belonged to Christ Himself (1Co 1:12), while they haughtily repudiated all subordinate teaching. Those persons falsely presented themselves as apostles (2Co 11:5, 13). The stance taken by them was that Paul was not one of the Twelve, and not an eye-witness of the Gospel facts, and that merely receiving assistance from the Christian Church doesn’t make him an apostle. Another group declared themselves followers of Paul himself, but they did so in a festive spirit, exalting Paul rather than Christ. Once again, there were the followers of Apollos, who undeservedly prized his Alexandrian learning and eloquence, to the belittling of Paul, who studiously avoided any deviation from Christian simplicity (1Co 2:1-5).
Immorality was common in Corinth and its church, where some denied the future resurrection, and adopted the motto, "Let us eat and drink, for to-morrow we die" (1Co 15:32). It was from this attitude, perhaps, that an incestuous relationship continued in the so-called Christian body between a man and his stepmother, while his father lived. The household of Chloe informed Paul of many other evils: such as strife among members, splits from the church, and lawsuits brought against brethren in heathen law courts by professing Christians; the abuse of their spiritual gifts by some putting on a show and fanaticism; the interruption of public worship by simultaneous and disorderly activities, and respectability violated by women speaking while unveiled (contrary to Oriental tradition), and thereby assuming the office of men, and even the holy communion desecrated by greediness and reveling on the part of the church members. Other groups, from Corinth and the surrounding cities consulted Paul on the subject of:
1. the controversy about meats offered to idols;
2. the disputes about celibacy and marriage;
3. the due exercise of spiritual gifts in public worship;
4. the best mode of making the collection which he had requested for the saints at Jerusalem (1Co 16:1). Such were the circumstances which are addressed in the First Epistle to the Corinthians, the most varied in its topics of all the Epistles.
In 1Co 5:9, we read, "I wrote unto you in an Epistle not to company with fornicators;" it is implied that Paul had written a previous letter to the Corinthians (which has been lost). Probably in it he had also called upon them to make a contribution for the poor saints at Jerusalem, at which they seem to have asked for instructions on how to go about it, to which he now replies (1Co 16:2). It also probably announced his intention of visiting them on the way to Macedonia, and again on his return from Macedonia (2Co 1:15, 16), but he changed his mind after hearing the unfavorable report from Chloe's household.
In 2Co 13:1, he speaks of his intention of paying them a third visit, implying he had already visited them twice. It’s likely that during his three years' stay at Ephesus he would have revisited his Corinthian converts, which he could easily do by sea, since there was a constant flow of ships between the two cities. His second visit was probably a short one (compare 1Co 16:7); and it was painful and humiliating for him (2Co 2:1), due to the scandalous conduct of so many of his own converts. So far his criticism of the Corinthian church has been mild, and it failed to bring about the reformation he was seeking, therefore he wrote briefly directing them "not to company with fornicators." But when they failed to comprehend this injunction, he explained it more fully in his First Epistle, (1Co 5:9, 12*22). It is true that his second visit is not mentioned in Acts, however that should not be ground for an objection to its having really taken place, because the book of Acts is fragmentary and omits other leading incidents in Paul's life; for example, his visit to Arabia, Syria, and Cilicia.
Corinth, like all other wealthy and well-located places, has often been a subject of contention between rival states; it has frequently changed masters, and undergone all forms of government. The Venetians held it until 1715, when the Turks took it from them; under whose dominion it has remained until the modern era. Under this deteriorating government it was greatly reduced in wealth and size, its whole population amounting only to between 13 and 14,000 souls. It is currently in the hands of the Greeks, its natural owners. It lies about 46 miles to the east of Athens, and 342 south-west of Constantinople. A few vestiges of its ancient splendor still remain, which are objects of curiosity and enjoyment to all informed travelers.
We have seen that Corinth was well situated for trade, and consequently very rich, it is no wonder that, in its heathen state, it was exceedingly corrupt and extravagant. Apart from this, every part of Grecian learning was highly cultivated here; yet the inhabitants of it were as immoral as they were learned. Public prostitution formed a considerable part of their religion; and they were accustomed in their public prayers, to request the gods to multiply their prostitutes! And in order to express their gratitude to their deities for the favors they received, they bound themselves, by vows, to increase the number of such women; because using their services was neither considered sinful or disgraceful. Lais, was a Corinthian prostitute, whose price was not less than 10,000 drachmas. So notorious was this city for its prostitutes that the verb, to Corinthianize, signified to act like a prostitute; and a Corinthian damsel, meant a harlot. I mention these things because the apostle mentions them in his letters to this city, and without this knowledge of their previous Gentile state and customs, we could not comprehend his letter. It is true, as the apostle states, that they carried these things to an extent that was not practiced in any other Gentile country. And yet, even in Corinth, we see the Gospel of Jesus Christ prevailing over universal corruption, and there was planted a Christian Church!
FOUNDING OF CORINTH
It is supposed, by some, to have been founded by Sisyphus, the son of Eolus, and grandfather of Ulysses, about the year of the world 2490 or 2500, and before the Christian era. Others report that it got its origin and name from Corinthus, the son of Pelops. At first it was a very small town; but at last, through its extensive commerce, it became the most luxurious city in Greece, and the capital of a powerful state. It was destroyed by the Romans under Mummius, about 146 years before Christ, but afterwards it was rebuilt by Julius Caesar.
Corinth exceeded all the cities of the world, for the splendor and magnificence of its public buildings, such as temples, palaces, theatres, porticos, cenotaphs, baths, and other edifices; all enriched with a beautiful kind of columns, capitals, and bases, from which the Corinthian order in architecture had its beginning. Corinth is also celebrated for its statues; those, especially, of Venus, the Sun, Neptune and Amphitrite, Diana, Apollo, Jupiter, Minerva, etc. The temple of Venus was not only very splendid, but also very rich, and well maintained; according to Strabo, not less than 1000 prostitutes were the means of bringing huge crowds of strangers to the place. Thus riches produced luxury, and luxury a total corruption of manners; though arts, sciences, and literature continued to flourish throughout its long history, and a measure of the military spirit of its ancient inhabitants was kept alive there by means of those public games which were called the Isthmian games, and took place once every five years. The exercises in these games were, leaping, running, throwing the quoit or dart, bowing, and wrestling. It appears that, besides these, there were amphitheatres for poetry and music; and the winners in any of these exercises were ordinarily crowned either with pine leaves or with parsley. It is well known that the apostle alludes to these games in different parts of his epistles, which will be pointed out as they occur.
The PLACE OF WRITING
The PLACE OF WRITING is definitely Ephesus (1Co 16:8). At the time of writing Paul implies (1Co 16:8) that he intended to leave Ephesus after Pentecost of that year. He really did leave it about that time (A.D. 57). The allusion to the Jewish Passover makes it likely that the season was about Easter. Thus the date of the Epistle is set with tolerable accuracy, to be about Easter, certainly before Pentecost, in the third year of his residence at Ephesus, A.D. 57.
Acts 18.12 (KJV)And when Gallio was the deputy of Achaia, the Jews made insurrection with one accord against Paul, and brought him to the judgment seat,
1 Cor 12:2 (KJV) Ye know that ye were Gentiles, carried away unto these dumb idols, even as ye were led.
Acts 18:8 (KJV) And Crispus, the chief ruler of the synagogue, believed on the Lord with all his house; and many of the Corinthians hearing believed, and were baptized. This person held an office and had considerable influence; and therefore his conversion to Christianity must have been very galling to the Jews.
Acts 18:5 (KJV) And when Silas and Timotheus were come from Macedonia, Paul was pressed in the spirit, and testified to the Jews that Jesus was Christ. Paul was pressed in spirit—or he was influenced by the Spirit of God, in an extraordinary manner, to testify to the Jews that Jesus was the Christ.
1 Cor 1:26 (KJV) For ye see your calling, brethren, how that not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called: This seems to have been said in opposition to the high and worldly notions of the Jews, who assert that the Divine Spirit never rests upon any man, unless he be wise, powerful, and rich. Now this Divine Spirit did rest upon the Christians at Corinth, and yet these were, in the sense of the world, neither wise, rich, or noble. We spoil, if not corrupt the apostle's meaning, by adding are called, as if God did not send his Gospel to the wise, the powerful, and the noble, or did not will their salvation. The truth is, the Gospel has an equal call to all classes of men; but the wise, the mighty, and the noble, are too busy, or too sensual, to pay any attention to an invitation so spiritual and so Divine; and therefore there are
1 Cor 1:14 (KJV) I thank God that I baptized none of you, but Crispus and Gaius;
Romans 16:23 (KJV) Gaius mine host, and of the whole church, saluteth you. Erastus the chamberlain of the city saluteth you, and Quartus a brother.
1 Cor 11:22 (KJV) What? have ye not houses to eat and to drink in? or despise ye the church of God, and shame them that have not? What shall I say to you? shall I praise you in this? I praise you not.
Acts 18:24 (KJV) And a certain Jew named Apollos, born at Alexandria, an eloquent man, and mighty in the scriptures, came to Ephesus. An eloquent man—Having strong rhetorical powers; highly cultivated, no doubt, in the Alexandrian schools. Mighty in the Scriptures—Thoroughly acquainted with the law and prophets; and well skilled in the Jewish method of interpreting them.
1Cor 2:1 (KJV) And I, brethren, when I came to you, came not with excellency of speech or of wisdom, declaring unto you the testimony of God. Acting suitably to my mission, which was to preach the Gospel, but not with human eloquence.
1 Cor 9:1 (KJV) Am I not an apostle? am I not free? have I not seen Jesus Christ our Lord? are not ye my work in the Lord? Have I not seen Jesus Christ—From whom in his personal appearance to me, I have received my apostolic commission. This was judged essentially necessary to being an apostle. See Acts 22:14, 15; 26:16.
1 Cor 1:12 (KJV) Now this I say, that every one of you saith, I am of Paul; and I of Apollos; and I of Cephas; and I of Christ. Every one of you saith—It seems from this expression that the whole Church at Corinth was in a state of dissension: they were all divided into the following sects:
1. Paulians, or followers of St. Paul;
2. Apollonians, or followers of Apollos;
3. Kephians, or followers of Kephas;
4. Christians, or followers of Christ.
2 Cor 11:5 (KJV) For I suppose I was not a whit behind the very chiefest apostles... For such are false apostles, deceitful workers, transforming themselves into the apostles of Christ. For such are false apostles—Persons who pretend to be apostles, but have no mission from Christ.
1 Cor 2:1-5 (KJV) And I, brethren, when I came to you, came not with excellency of speech or of wisdom, declaring unto you the testimony of God. For I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness, and in fear, and in much trembling. And my speech and my preaching was not with enticing words of man's wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power: That your faith should not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God.
1 Cor 15:32 (KJV) If after the manner of men I have fought with beasts at Ephesus, what advantageth it me, if the dead rise not? let us eat and drink; for to morrow we die. let us eat, &c. -- Quoted from the Septuagint, (Isa 22:13), where the prophet describes the reckless self-indulgence of the despisers of God's call to mourning, Let us enjoy the good things of life now, for it soon will end. Paul imitates the language of such skeptics, to reprove both their theory and practice. "If men but persuade themselves that they shall die like the beasts, they soon will live like beasts too" —Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Bible Commentary
1 Cor 16:1 (KJV) Now concerning the collection for the saints, as I have given order to the churches of Galatia, even so do ye.
[171 Cor 16:2 (KJV) Upon the first day of the week let every one of you lay by him in store, as God hath prospered him, that there be no gatherings when I come. Upon the first day of the week—The apostle prescribes the most convenient and proper method of making this contribution.
2 Cor 1:15-16 (KJV) And in this confidence I was minded to come unto you before, that ye might have a second benefit; And to pass by you into Macedonia, and to come again out of Macedonia unto you, and of you to be brought on my way toward Judaea. I was minded—I had planned to come to you before, as he had implied in 1 Corinthians 16:5; and he had intended to call on them on his way back from Macedonia, but he did not fulfill his plans in this; and he gives the reason in 2 Corinthians 1:23.
2 Cor 13:1 (KJV) This is the third time I am coming to you. In the mouth of two or three witnesses shall every word be established.
1 Cor 16:7 (KJV) For I will not see you now by the way; but I trust to tarry a while with you, if the Lord permit. From Ephesus to Corinth was merely across the Aegean Sea, and comparatively a short passage.
2 Cor 2:1 (KJV) But I determined this with myself, that I would not come again to you in heaviness. The apostle continues to give reasons for why he did not visit them at the proposed time. Because of the scandals they were involved in, he could not see them comfortably; and therefore he determined not to see them at all until he had reason to believe they were no longer involved in those evil practices.
1 Cor 5:9, 12 (KJV) I wrote unto you in an epistle not to company with fornicators… For what have I to do to judge them also that are without? do not ye judge them that are within? Not to company with fornicators—With which, as we have already seen, Corinth abounded. It was not only the grand sin, but staple, of the place. For what have I to do to judge them also that are without?—The term without, signifies those who were not members of the Church; within signifies those who are church members. Paul says, “It does not fall to me to pass sentence on those which are without—which are not members of the Church? You can judge those which are within—which are members of the Church: those which are without—which are not members of the Church, God will pass sentence on them, in the way in which he generally deals with the heathen world. But you must put away the evil from among yourselves.
1 Cor 16:8 (KJV) But I will tarry at Ephesus until Pentecost. Paul writes his epistle from Ephesus.